(This article was first published by the Salisbury Review)
I was a child when students on University Challenge wore tweed, and children were encouraged to show off their general knowledge on quizzes like Top of the Form and Ask the Family. There was a joke then among middle-class parents that some university students watched ITV and children’s programmes, which was regarded as hilarious because everyone knew how seriously clever they really were.
To be ‘clever’ was a great thing in England until the 1970s. The ‘brainy’ child in class was pointed out as someone special. There was often a hint of, ‘not for the likes of us,’ in this, but many parents both undermined, so you didn’t get too big for your boots, and pushed at the same time. This was a two-pronged attack on their children’s self worth – and it worked. You felt dreadful until you achieved something.
‘You can only do your best’ was a comforting motto of the time but no one believed it. No one was rewarded merely for hard work, they had to pass the test, and to get good A levels show real flair for the subject.
That somewhat exacting culture was junked in England, although not by our Celtic neighbours, along with classics, replaced with something inexplicable and almost uniquely English. Whatever it is, it’s not education, and we heard the results of this strange head shrinking virus last week: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that young people in England are the most illiterate in the developed world. Students can graduate with only a basic grasp of English and maths, not enough to work out a petrol gauge or a medicine bottle.
Using research from 2012, they found that England had nine million people of working age with low literacy or numeracy skills. There were three times more sixteen to nineteen year olds in this group than in top-performing countries such as Holland, Finland, Japan, Korea.
Most tragically, pensioners or those educated before 1950 were among the highest-ranked of their age internationally. Our parents and grandparents had a top class-education, for nothing, in state schools. They did it learning by rote, managing not just literacy and numeracy, including really hard things like logarithms and algebra, but also second and third languages, with sport thrown in on top.
Perhaps the Anglo-Saxon brain has gone peculiarly soft thanks to a deadly diminishing virus, or a fiendish plot by our long-term enemies. Strangely the latter is true, but we can’t blame The Mekon or Russia, which always kept rigorous educational standards. Our long term enemies have been teachers, those passionate haters of Michael Gove, the second class academics in love with their own mysterious brand of cultural Maoism. Remarkably, in a developed nation, those ideologues have been allowed to bring the mass of our people intellectually to the year 0.
When I went to a comp myself to do A levels, I heard teachers say they didn’t want ‘students’ as we were then being called, learning facts. Knowledge for its own sake was elitist and old fashioned. Students only needed to know their rights. It was a strange view, very different from anything I’d heard at home from my grammar school parents. I thought it sounded great. It got me off the hook and armed with that thinking I could even get to university without ever reading a book.
We see the results of this now in all our state agencies, including the NHS, where clerical staff are famously chaotic and illiterate and nurses educated to degree level in something which was once a practical skill. We’ve seen the effect in social services. After the death of Victoria Climbie in 2000 it was found that social workers had filed away concerned doctors’ reports because they weren’t able to read them. It even affects our lamentable railways. As the editor of a railway magazine recently told the BBC: ‘Sadly, there is just no one bright enough in England now to run a good railway system.’
The OECD report rated English teenagers aged 16 to 19 the worst of 23 developed nations in literacy and 22nd of 23 in numeracy. I could have told them that without a report. I wrote about it in my book, Inside, in 2008 after teaching for a year in HMP Wormwood Scrubs.
I taught many nationalities in prison and was shocked at how extremely well educated they were compared to the English lags. Men from Africa, Poland and the Middle-East could concentrate on a lesson and were eager to participate but the English knew nothing, had no interests and could not follow a simple argument. Most would put their heads down on their arms and say, ‘It’s too hard, Miss.’ They would also ask me not to use ‘big words,’ that didn’t worry any other group. Some of the black Britons were slightly more aspiring, but many of them were obsessed with music and drugs.
I described this to a primary school teacher recently. ‘I suppose you mean the Africans could do sums,’ she said scornfully, as if being able to do ‘sums’ was the last thing any British teacher should aim for, obviously having some much higher aim such as cultivating ‘creativity’ and ‘critical thinking.’ Or perhaps, ‘empathy’ which came in when historical facts were thrown out as suspect.
Despite sharing the usual politics of the modern teacher, extreme left and in favour of mass migration, this one also had contempt for some foreign parents. She told me that Chinese children were pouring into her school, some with very little English. But the problem was those ‘tiger Mums.’
‘They expect so much,’ she said angrily. ‘They come from a totally different culture. They want their children to have a formal style education, learning things by rote and sit there in rows, chanting.’
For a left-winger to criticise any aspect of a foreign culture is most unusual, but when it comes to learning, English teachers are determined to protect their children from it. They seem to agree with Oscar Wilde, who wrote in 1895; ‘I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.’
Being Ango-Irish bourgeoisie he laughed at English upper-class philistinism. Ironically, this elite has been able to preserve its traditional standards in exchange for cash. It is the great mass of the population who have suffered so badly from new educational notions. I managed my classes in prison by treating it as an old fashioned grammar school. I was decidedly a ‘sage on a stage’ standing before the class holding forth, at least to begin lessons. No Ofsted inspectors around to criticise my methods, I was also backed up, not by a head-master with a cane, but a prison officer with a baton. Both are effective.
Teacher and writer Daisy Christodoulou has identified the prevailing myths in English education which she believes are letting children down. These include the idea that knowing how to look facts up online is ‘a skill’ more important than retaining information, that facts prevent understanding, teaching knowledge equals indoctrination, and teachers standing up and teaching is a sign of classroom ‘passivity.’
Daisy, who attended private school under the assisted places scheme, just before it was abolished by Labour, believes young people in state schools now have vast gaps in their knowledge and understanding, and that traditional fact-based lessons would rectify this. For her, skills depend on facts, not the other way around.
In 2013 she studied nine Ofsted reports into different subjects, analysing 228 lessons and in all of them children were busy on Google while the teacher remained a ‘guide on the side,’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage.’ She wants teachers to pour facts onto children in the classroom and believes that direct instruction from a teacher is highly effective. As an English teacher she saw pupils struggling to write essays without any knowledge of grammar or sentence structure, and looking up words, unable to understand the definitions. There was always this ‘shaky grasp of the fundamentals.’
She has been widely attacked for her views, mainly by teachers. The answer to this is for the Government to get rid of all existing teachers in the state sector unless they pledge themselves to teaching the fundamentals of learning once again. If none of them can be found to do this, there is an whole army of pensioners out there with time on their hands, ready-reckoners in their pockets, and facts about maths, grammar, history, literature, French and geography so ingrained by rote-learning that they are still with them after seventy years or more.